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The pitfalls of exam preparation

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Girl sat at desk writingAhead of his talk at IATEFL Liverpool, Zoltan Rezmuves looks at some of the tough choices that must be made when preparing students for exams.

What’s your main goal in teaching English? You’ll probably say something along the lines of “enabling students to communicate well in English” and perhaps also “developing students to be better people“. But have you ever had a group of students preparing for an examination? Then you know that your success or failure will be measured not by how well they can express themselves in real life, and not even by how well they fit into society. Where there is an important exam at the end of the process, you can only succeed if your students pass the exam. It’s that simple. But what does this mean in terms of classroom practice?

EXAM PREPARATION TO-DO LIST

1. You will have to cover the exam syllabus (the topics, the grammar and vocabulary, the skills and sub-skills), and make sure you don’t miss out anything.

2. You will have to familiarise your students with all the exam task types, and provide them with strategies to complete each type of task with maximum efficiency.

3. You will have to familiarise your students with the assessment criteria – so they know how to maximise their point scores, and how to avoid losing valuable points.

4. You will have to provide students with practice and rehearsal opportunities, so when they get to the real exam, it’s not their first time completing it.

The above is just a rough shortlist of tasks for you. Can you think of other things students will expect of you?

To continue with the same train of thought, what does this mean in terms of what you’re NOT going to do in the classroom?

EXAM PREPARATION NOT-GOING-TO-DO LIST

1. You are not going to cover language points that aren’t required in the exam. Students probably won’t mind. But don’t forget that often we only teach language points because we know they’re going to be tested. Throughout my career as a learner, there has always been a massive emphasis on irregular verbs. They are certainly useful, but the reason we spent so much time memorising long lists of them was merely because they were going to feature in our exams. Think about this – is there any language you’d skip or spend less time on if it wasn’t in the exam?

2. You are going to prioritise the task types that do occur in the exam over those that don’t – which means you’re probably going to reduce task type variety. You feel responsible for your students’ success, so you make sure their exposure to exam expectations is maximised. When it comes down to a choice between, say, an open personalised speaking task and another multiple-choice gap fill, perhaps you’re going to go for the gap fill… again.

3. In order to prepare your students well and to make sure you’re not leaving even your weakest student behind, you’re going to spend a lot of time focusing on what’s needed for the exam. When pressed for time, you are not going to do too many activities which have no connection to the exam. This includes games, drama, discussion of controversial / intriguing (depending on your viewpoint) subjects, jokes and humour in general… can you continue this list? Exams are neutral, non-controversial, and let’s face it, pretty bland. Which is fine because tests are measurement tools, and it’s important to reduce unwanted extra factors, like emotional responses. But bear in mind that “pretty bland” is exactly the opposite of what language classes should be! How are you going to motivate students if you’re spending so much time doing stuff that isn’t motivating?

What I’m saying is that our general aims in language teaching and the aims of exam preparation are linked, but sometimes their priorities clash, and it will be up to you to strike the right balance and to blend learning for real life and exam preparation.

Zoltan Rezmuves will be talking about Speaking and Writing in Exam Training: Blended Solutions at IATEFL Liverpool on Wednesday 10th April in Hall 4b at 11:40am.

Author: Oxford University Press ELT

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7 thoughts on “The pitfalls of exam preparation

  1. Many thanks for this useful information. Something to bear in mind! Andrew M Garvey

  2. Reblogged this on Stop Complaining – Enjoy Teaching! and commented:
    “What I’m saying is that our general aims in language teaching and the aims of exam preparation are linked, but sometimes their priorities clash.”
    So what do we do when our English teaching and our students’ learning has been reduced to an exam at the end of secondary school?

    • There is no simple solution to that problem. At least, Maturita is a relatively well-designed skills-based exam which allows you to teach a balanced diet of skills… without having to skip them in favour of a formal-structural, descriptive body of knowledge ABOUT the language. (Think back to language exams up to the early 1990s.)
      However, all many of your students (and their parents) will expect you to do is to get them through the exam – end of learning. Which, of course, should not be the end of the process.
      The difficult solution is to prepare students in a way that teaches them all the real-life communication skills rather than focuses on mechanical test task preparation. For example, instead of aiming to practise a format like four-option multiple choice cloze, your aim could be on the communicative goal of the text you use, but using the mcq format to highlight some of the cohesive devices of that type of text. Or instead of comparing and contrasting two arbitrarily chosen coursebook photos, your aim could be sharing personal experiences of special occasions – through comparing and contrasting family photos of, say, weddings or graduation ceremonies. The trick would be to always aim to do both: exams as well as real life.
      This is a subject worth investigating further, and I will try to do so on my blog at some point in the near future: consonantvoiced.blogspot.com.

  3. Pingback: The pitfalls of exam preparation | Merit Teacher's Digest - Young Learners | Scoop.it

  4. Pingback: The pitfalls of exam preparation | English Teacher's Digest | Scoop.it

  5. Reblogged this on Tim's Free English Lesson Plans and commented:
    Just getting my teeth into Delta module 3, food for thought…

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